The quality of services for children has improved in all areas in Wirral since the last inspection in 2016, when services were judged to be inadequate overall.
The appointment of a new leadership team, including the Director of Children’s Services (DCS), led to an accurate understanding of the deficits, as well as effective implementation of plans that have resulted in significant improvement.
"Services for children have become a central council priority and this has led to an accelerated improvement in the quality of social work practice that is making a difference for children," said the report.
Investment in additional social work posts alongside improvements in office space, equipment and professional development have assisted recruitment and retention and have led to a reduction in social work caseloads which means that a better service for children is being delivered.
Overall, Wirral was rated as requires improvement to be good. in relation to the experiences and progress of children who need help and protection which, Ofsted said, requires improvement to be good, inspectors highlighted:
- The experience and progress of children who need help and protection was inadequate at the last inspection in 2016, due to a serious systemic failure to apply thresholds of need, and led to widespread drift and delay in the response to children. This is no longer the case. Thresholds are understood across the partnership and the vast majority of children receive help from the right service at the right time.
- Early help is making a positive difference for children.
- When there are concerns about their safety or welfare, children are referred appropriately to the integrated front door (IFD).
- When children are at risk of significant harm, this is recognised.
- Assessments are generally timely and identify key risks for children as well as strengths within the family network.
- Social workers visit children regularly and are making increasing use of direct work to understand their lives.
- In most cases, child in need and child protection plans make good use of the new practice model to highlight what needs to change.
- When children are at risk of criminal or sexual exploitation or because they have gone missing, work to tackle these risks and to protect children is established and effective.
- Children with additional needs or disabilities have their needs appropriately assessed and are provided with a range of support that helps them.
The report highlights that when children live in homes where domestic abuse is present, the risks to them are recognised and responded to. This recognition and the speed of response has improved since the time of the last inspection. However, despite there being a generally good range of services available, there are currently no perpetrator programmes available, information and intelligence sharing is limited, and services are not well coordinated.
When children remain at risk, despite child protection planning, decisions are made to consider legal action. Decision-making to begin pre-proceedings processes is mostly timely, but the work that then takes place is not consistent in ensuring progress for children.
The local authority has identified through its own audit work that social work practice with those children subject to supervision orders is weak. Planning and review of their situation is poor. Improved systems and oversight have been put in place. No children were seen to be at risk of harm, and all are receiving a service, but sustained improvement in the quality of work had not been achieved by the time of this inspection.
Despite some work to raise awareness across the partnership, there are only very small numbers of children identified as living in private fostering arrangements.
For the experiences and progress of children in care and care leavers which Ofsted rated as requires improvement to be good, the report stated that at the time of the inspection in 2016, the judgement for the experiences of children in care was that it required improvement to be good. The service for care leavers was inadequate. Early monitoring visits reported that, following inspection, new additional deficits in practice with children in care were also identified. In addition, the rate of children coming into care during 2016–17 rose dramatically from 29 per 10,000 to 51 per 10,000. As part of its improvement work, the local authority reviewed children who were subject to child in need and child protection planning, and this consequently resulted in an increase in applications to court and children coming into care, as well as an increase in the scale of the improvement work required. This inspection identified improvement in most areas of service, but overall the quality of practice is not good.
Ofsted also found:
- Most children come into care at the right time even though Wirral has many more children under the age of one who come into care than other local authorities.
- There is significant improvement in the timeliness and quality of court work for children.
- The majority of children live in suitable placements with carers and families who look after them well. Most children live close to their home community, which ensures that they maintain links with family and friends.
- Assessments are detailed and evaluate risk and need and, for most children, they are updated when things change.
- Children in care now benefit from stronger systems of care planning.
- Children in care have their plans reviewed on time.
- There has been significant work to drive improvement in the fostering service.
- Improvement in recruitment has resulted in an increase in the number of foster carers approved to provide a home for children.
- Adoption is considered for a wide range of children, including older children and groups of brothers and sisters.
- Care leavers are now receiving a better quality of service, with practice continuing to improve since the monitoring visit in December 2018.
However, when children subject to care orders are placed with their parents, the support provided is informed by an assessment of need. Plans of support and placement with parents’ agreements are not of a consistently good quality. Some reports provide a clear rationale for the decision to return home and there is an effective detailed assessment and plan of support in place which makes sure that children thrive. For other children, arrangements are less clear, and plans that are meant to ensure that children’s outcomes improve are weaker.
Care planning meetings are held regularly and support progress, but do not always include the range of relevant agencies to ensure robust information-sharing. Written care plans are not always completed in a clear and succinct manner to support the work being done with children.
Many children in care are persistently absent from school, and this prevents better achievement and progress. For the last three years, persistent absence for children in care has been above the national average and the gap is widening. The local authority recognises that there has been a historically weak approach to tackling poor attendance. As part of wider strategic reform, the attendance service has been reviewed and is to be reformed, but it is too early for this to have had any impact.
Health assessments are completed but are sometimes delayed when children first come into care.
The quality of child permanence reports is not consistently good and does not ensure good-quality information for children or their prospective adopters. The emotional health and well-being needs of young people are recognised, but the range of support post-18 is limited. Care leavers often wait too long to get help and do not always receive the most effective support to meet their complex emotional needs.
Ofsted stated that the impact of leaders on social work practice with children and families is good. The report stresses:
- Since late 2017, there has been an increase in the pace of change, and the needs of children are now a priority. Significant changes to the senior leadership team, including the appointment of a corporate director for transformation, deputy director of children’s services and the DCS, have ensured that the improvement of services for children is at the centre of a wider corporate agenda to transform council services.
- Senior and political leaders now have an accurate understanding of the quality of practice in children’s services.
- Significant work has been undertaken to develop stronger strategic relationships with partner agencies.
- There are good systems in place to ensure that leaders have an accurate understanding of practice.
- A range of regular and focused audits provide an effective ongoing evaluation of the quality of work with children, and include strengths and areas for development.
- At the start of the inspection, leaders presented an accurate understanding of the quality
of practice for children. All weaknesses identified during inspection were already known to the local authority and part of the ongoing improvement plans.
- Supervision and management oversight are routinely in place.
- Leaders have undertaken significant successful recruitment activity, and staff turnover and numbers of agency workers have reduced considerably.
- The numbers of children that frontline staff are working with are carefully monitored, and managers take action when these increase. Caseloads have reduced in the service over the last 12 months, and workers report feeling that workloads are manageable.
"The vast majority of the workforce have embraced significant changes and greater oversight and scrutiny to improve practice standards. They are enthusiastic about continuing to make further improvements. Frontline staff and managers are consistently positive about the impact of leaders on improving the conditions for social work," the report concluded.
Ofsted recommends Wirral improves the quality of analysis within social work assessments to fully take account of the impact of lived experiences of children and lead to good-quality planning for children, including effective planning for permanence. The timeliness and quality of transition arrangements for young people who will require support from adult services also needs work.
The availability of good-quality services to meet the emotional health and wellbeing needs of all children and young people needs addressing at the time when they need it, without delay.
Wirral should also address the provision of education for children in care, including improving their attendance and the timeliness and quality of their personal education plans.
Finally, there should be provision of direct work and life-story work for all children at the right time for them to make sure they understand their life experience.
Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council
Inspection of children’s social care services